One day, perhaps in the coming months, you could be lying on your couch and thinking about a vacation. You would have your phone nearby. You pick it up and tell your artificial intelligence-powered phone that you want to take a week-long trip to Rome in Italy. "Prepare me an itinerary that includes a visit to the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and yes, not to forget, include all the nice cafes that I must visit for my morning cappuccino and afternoon espresso shots," you would dictate while lazily reclining on your couch, "And don't forget to tell me the availability and prices of the air tickets. I prefer to travel in the late morning and return by Saturday evening."
Within minutes, your phone would churn out a near-perfect travel plan, including airfare options. "Should I book your air tickets and make a reservation at the restaurants based on diet preferences that you have told me before?" it asks. After a passing look, you would say yes and go back to your afternoon nap.
This future is not far away from science fiction stuff anymore. AI-enabled bots, such as ChatGPT, have already started creating itineraries and help away the hassle of collecting information manually by studying guidebooks or scrolling internet sites. Very clearly, AI algorithms will act as personal assistants and help travellers create a personalised itinerary based on travellers' preferences, past choices, and real-time data. These recommendations will range from destination suggestions to activities and dining options on the go.
Soon, there will be many more use cases and AI tools available that will disrupt the travel industry. Here are some of the ways in which we may see the disruption in the coming decade.
The biggest impact AI-enabled tools will have is that they will help those who cannot travel see the world, thereby significantly expanding the overall industry. How, you may wonder. As a result of the metaverse. Companies like Meta have spent years building up their metaverse infrastructure and are searching for ways to improve engagement via mixed-reality headsets for the metaverse.
While it was initially touted as leading to a virtual world where people can escape reality and live their best lives, more recently, the use-case has pivoted to making the users see the world more lucidly. An estimated 1.3 billion people—about 16 per cent of the global population—currently experience significant disability and cannot travel. This number will continue to increase as the population ages. Accessing the metaverse, or rather the real world not accessible, through headsets will help a portion of these people see far-off places where their legs cannot take them. Sitting in their homes, they can visit historical landmarks, take tours of museums, or even attend live rock concert shows.
The idea of metaverse tourism, with its interactive virtual worlds, has the potential to change the way travellers interact with other locations.
For those who can travel, Augmented Reality apps will help travellers navigate and explore new destinations by overlaying digital information, such as historical facts or directions, onto the real world. This will encourage travellers to fully engage with their destination.
How often have you travelled to a foreign destination where no one understands your language? There you are, lost in the middle of a buzzing bazaar and asking locals the way back or bargaining for a favourite dress at a local shop. You don't understand what they are saying.
Worry not, for language translation is going to get much better.
Language translation is not new, but with AI-powered translation apps and devices, it will become even more powerful and help break down language barriers. Foreign destinations will no longer be foreign. While human translators have traditionally been the primary means of facilitating cross-language communication, especially for bigger tour groups, machine translation systems have the capability to continuously learn and improve, resulting in more precise translations than ever before. However, this does not imply that the role of human translators will disappear. Instead, human translators will leverage AI-powered tools to assist in their work, for example, handling tour groups from different nationalities and not worrying about the need to translate into multiple languages and have AI do the job for them. Similarly, individual travellers will also benefit from accessing better translation capabilities, allowing them to venture into more foreign locations.
One big revolution that AI is already leading is changing the way we commute within our cities. Tourists will not be left untouched by this transformation either. AI-empowered self-driving cars and buses will become more prevalent, offering tourists more options. Removing a human driver from the equation adds new possibilities, like personalised sightseeing tours.
AI-enabled self-driving car technology is yet to fully mature. The current hardware is prohibitively expensive for mass production, and the associated risks of letting such cars out on the roads are significantly high, but it is high time to begin considering the eventual traveller experience. In the next few years, the technology will progress further to the point that travellers will be comfortable enough to rent and let themselves be in connected autonomous vehicles.
One key change for the travellers will be the absence of human drivers. Jet-lagged travellers will not be behind the wheels of rental cars, ensuring higher safety. Feeling safe in these cars, travellers may even catch some sleep en route to the next destination and arrive there fully refreshed.
On the one hand, self-driving vehicles might put professional drivers out of business, while on the other, such driverless cars are expected to be safer, resulting in fewer accidents. Moreover, within crowded cities, such as New York or Delhi, driverless cars will most likely lead to less dangerous rides through the city than traditional cabs.
In addition, AI will aid in optimising travel routes and transportation modes to reduce carbon footprints, helping the travel industry move towards more eco-friendly and sustainable practices. Consequently, AI will help improve traffic management and reduce congestion in popular tourist destinations.
AI-enabled apps combined with driverless sightseeing cars and buses can also be programmed to create personalised experiences for tourists. For example, imagine that you travel to a new city. Before boarding the flight, you have already indicated your interests through a pre-trip questionnaire. Based on your response, the AI-programmed app would create a map optimised for your tour, and your driverless cab, which would know what interests you, would take you to all these selected destinations in a systematic manner. On the way from one site to another, tourists in such driverless cars could experience entertainment in a VR environment.
Such innovation will reduce time spent not only in planning but also in travelling to the right destinations. As a result, you will have more time to explore the destination and cover many more sights.
While we have been focusing so far on the impact of technology on travellers, let's not forget that the tourism businesses, especially the hospitality sector, will also be significantly impacted by the penetration of AI in their day-to-day operations. For example, routine processes like travel bookings and filling forms will be the first to be automated, followed closely by marketing and sales (through personalised ads). One such example is AI-powered chatbots that allow customers to find information quickly without contacting customer service and waiting in queue for several minutes. Such automation will give businesses more time to provide better services and more human contact to their customers.
World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that as soon as 2025, AI-enabled technologies such as travel personalisation, automated traveller service, voice recognition and translation, virtual reality and metaverse, and facial recognition could result in a $1 trillion boost in global economic activity. By leveraging AI, the travel and tourism industry will improve customer experience, reduce costs, and lead to increased economic activity.
The future of travel is ready for a remarkable transformation. From the convenience of AI-generated personalised itineraries to the possibilities offered by self-driving cars facilitating tourists' exploration of unfamiliar destinations, the travel industry is set for a profound change. AI's ability to analyse vast amounts of data and make real-time recommendations will make travel more seamless than ever before. It will not just be about booking flights and hotels; it will be about crafting unique experiences for each traveller.
While the tourists will have more tools in their hands, the impact of AI extends to revolutionising the operations of tourism businesses as well. This would be done by providing enhanced customer experiences and thereby stimulating economic growth. Looking ahead a few years, it's clear that AI will play a fundamental role in reshaping the way we travel and experience the world, making it more accessible, enjoyable, and efficient for all.
This brave new world of travel holds the promise of unforgettable journeys.
—Nitin Chaudhary is a freelance travel writer based in Sweden.